Scott Stroman’s composition feels heavily influenced by Bernstein, particularly West Side Story. Indeed, Fever Pitch has a number of themes that coincide with the lovers Romeo & Juliet – the devotion between Gooner (Robin Bailey) and his beloved football team, Arsenal; the battle between supporters at a derby match; the heartache and heartbreak that comes with great love stories. Highbury Opera Theatre’s latest production charts the journey that a fanatical supporter embarks upon from the moment he falls in love with this team of choice – a relationship that lasts through thick and thin to the detriment of all else.
Fever Pitch is an opera that reaches out to its audience in the way a strong football team engages with its supporters. Tamsin Collison’s libretto is peppered with popular chants, ditties and anthems that are synonymous with cheering on the game, a set of mantras that inspire camaraderie and team spirit. The chorus of all ages walk to the stage through the audience, a feeling of solidarity that Fever Pitch never fails to drum up in the chorus numbers – “Promise Me, Dad” and “The Greatest Moment Ever” capturing the highs and lows when your team fails one season and triumphs the next.
Stroman’s score incorporates high levels of chromatic complexity, which are contemporary and cleverly through-composed. But in many ways the music stands as a contrast to the feeling that the story tries to generate – the cast of Fever Pitch are frequently lost amid the convoluted melodies, lacking the experience to be able to confidently project their parts. There is very little in the way of harmony in this production, the distorted musical lines proving too complicated to stand up to anything other than a bit of call of response with already well-known football chants. Stroman is a harsh task master.
The overall narrative arc as well at times is lacking – the relationship between Gooner and Arsenal FC as he grows up is clearly at the centre, but to this extent all subplots fall by the wayside. Act 4 in particular is poorly conceived. While it is laudable to highlight mental health adjoined with the success of a football team, Fever Pitch seems to insinuate that a quick visit to a psychiatrist (Joanna Harries) is all it takes to set you back on the straight and narrow – a short-sighted and unintentionally insensitive interpretation of highly complex issues. A quick song and dance does not suddenly make everything fine and dandy.
Despite some oversights, Fever Pitch is a well-intentioned and plucky story, full of heart and personality. The chorus, while amateur, are engaged under Stroman’s enthusiastic leadership and throw their all into the performance. The more experienced performers are on the whole competent, the voices of Harries, Nick Allen and Robert Gildon carrying the gravitas and weight of operatic training. Main character Gooner (Bailey) carries the responsibility of lead with an easygoing personality, his voice at times crossing the line between operatic and musical theatre. It would be easy to imagine Bailey’s tone in a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, or as Tony in West Side Story.
Fever Pitch has pluck, heart and the kind of fervid support that only the most diehard of fans give to a football team in the throes of failure. In the cavernous venue of Union Chapel, the acoustics work against the technical ability of Stroman’s cast. But there’s no mistaking the power of their personalities, which could fill a space ten times the size.
Director: Bernie C Byrnes
Producer: Greg Klerkx for Highbury Opera Theatre
Libretto: Tamsin Collison
Composer/ Conductor: Scott Stroman
Choreographer: Laura Doye
Design: Becky Athawes
Principal Cast: Robin Bailey; Joanna Harries (Girl); Robert Gildon (Dad); Nick Allen (Rat); Tim Maby (Commentator); Philip Protheroe (Teen Gooner)
Musicians: Lucy Waterhouse (violin); Katy Heller (viola); Chris Allen (cello); Bob McKay (Wind 1); Alex Western-King (Wind 2); Noel Langley (Brass 1); Chris Valentine (Brass 2); Stuart Hall (guitar); Tim Wells (bass); Winston Clifford (percussion)
Image courtesy of Claudia Marinaro
Fever Pitch plays Union Chapel until 24 September 2017. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the website.